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The team of major gift fundraisers right before the event at the home of Bill & Melinda Gates

Working the Room - When it's a Challenge

donors events fundraisers fundraising major donors relationships teamwork Oct 05, 2022

Recently I've been talking about Working the Room - how to get the most out of donor relationships during event. Then I wrote a post about getting the right people to the event.  The posts outlined practical steps about how fundraisers, board and staff can focus on the donors and not the event.

As fundraisers, we are always looking to more deeply engage our donors as supporters of our nonprofit, and one easy way is by leveraging the time they are with your nonprofit at events. Rather than just enjoying the auction or golf tournament or stewardship luncheon, you can connect donors to important people, hear the gratitude from the front-line staff, and meet leaders or those your nonprofit serves.

But even the best laid plans go awry. Let's talk about how to overcome challenges you may encounter when working the room.

Challenge: Board members stick together and don't circulate. After my first post, many expressed frustration at this. And it perhaps board members only get together at meetings and therefore find events a great time to catch up or talk shop. But that doesn't help guests feel included, nor does it help build relationship bridges with donors and prospects.

Solution: Break them up yourself by bringing a donor over to meet them, "Ari! Have you met members of our board yet? This is our Chair and immediate past Chair. They have offered crucial leadership during...." Or go to the group, select one and ask if s/he has been able to meet Donor A (as agreed). "Donor A is over here and introduced that new prospect to us who made a new major gift. Donor A, have you met Maria, a member of our Board of Directors?" Don't berate them, just show them what needs to be done and introduce a donor or prospect to them.

Challenge: There are too many guests to meet. Great news! We sold out the event! Bad news, there are 24 key donors represented just from your portfolio.

Solution: Remember to set an achievable goal. You don't want to make a beeline from donor to donor getting your list "done" but rather to circulate naturally and take advantage of encounters that occur organically. Prioritize your list - you may only have a list of 7 people to meet or thank and you can always do more.

Challenge: The space is too big and "I can't even find the donors!" In a big hall, outdoor event or an event at a large home or estate can present big problems - there is no app for locating a donor. Donors may congregate inside (seemingly invisible), some donors cover wide swaths of territory (hoping to see every inch of the place), and some donors are constantly on the move (you arrive in the Japanese Tea House just as they left).

Solution: For an outdoor event, be sure you wear appropriate shoes for the terrain and occasion - you may have to cover large swaths of territory. Your pre-event meeting should determine and prioritize who needs introductions and thanks, so you can help with anyone, not just those in your portfolio. Remember, you are on a team. If you have a large team of fundraisers and nonprofit staff, be sure to share the list - you may encounter Donor B or Prospect C before your colleague can. Then you can offer thanks or connect the guest to the Executive Director or board member or the move that has been determined.

Challenge: The space is cramped. Sometimes the sold-out event makes it difficult to navigate your way to individual people, and sometimes close quarters makes it awkward to leave a conversation, since there is little natural flow around the room.

Solution: Knowing you need to circulate, after talking with this particular person or group, thank them and say that you have to say hello to Donor A to thank him/her for support. Step away and find a path to Donor A. Don't scan the crowd beforehand to find your path to the other side of the room as it seems rude to be looking over the donor's shoulder rather than looking at him/her. If necessary, make your connections once everyone is seated. And make it easy on the person you are talking with to excuse him- or herself from your conversation - that is being gracious.

Challenge: There is a "star" in the room. When there is a big name in the room - perhaps a well-known philanthropist, business leader or the headliner at your event - everyone lines up and say hello, have a word or just be seen with the "star." This can lead to an awkward clump of guests as they position themselves to see and be seen.

Solution: If your donor is in this captive audience queue, join him/her in the line. "Waiting to talk to Melinda? I just wanted to pop over and say thank you so much for your leadership on Project Y. You have inspired other community leaders to give and we cannot thank you enough." There may not be much conversation if your donor is eyeing the progress of the line, but that's OK. But if s/he  misses the chance, you may not be forgiven.

Challenge: "I just can't break into the conversations."  Sometimes with an event hosted at a private home or when a donor invites a close-knit group of friends and peers, fundraisers just cannot break into the conversations. Usually, guests understand that fundraising (or friend-raising) events mean that nonprofit staff will be there to meet, maybe they even expect a solicitation.

Solution: This is difficult and discouraging. In one case I experienced, five major gift officers were circling around the room and not one of us could get more than a cursory glance from the guests. Time to enact Plan B, which is wait until later in the event when the room transitions and reorganizes (after the speaker, performer, client, etc.) . Be ready to sit or stand near one of the key donors or supporters on your list so that you can take advantage of the next event transition to start a conversation.

Challenge: You arrive at the event just having received bad news. Whether this is bad news related to work or in your personal life, it's hard to shake. But you must put yourself in the right frame of mind to meet donors.

Solution: Positive imagery is well-documented success point for athletes and others, so take a page from that book. First, imagine other events where you have had your own good interactions with donors. Then think about the good outcomes your nonprofit is creating. Finally, remember that you are helping donors better understand how they are the heroes and will create a better world. And smile. (Sometimes you do have to fake it before you make it.)

As a fundraiser, you are the solution maker! Be more flexible and attentive and prepare for several eventualities.

Go forth to your events and build those relationships!

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